Dido: Living the dream

Her debut album, No Angel, sold a staggering - and totally unexpected - 12 million copies. Can Dido repeat the success? And, would she want to? The singer tells Alexia Loundras about fame, fortune and the possibility of falling flat on her face the second time around
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The Independent Culture

"I've always known exactly what I'm up to and I don't ever feel a need to explain myself," says Dido Armstrong through a brilliant smile. Miss Armstrong - better known simply as Dido - is charmingly irreverent. Radiating the adolescent playfulness of a 15-year-old, she refuses to be tamed by the imposing formality of a London's private members club, Home House. Instead, dressed simply in jeans and a trendy T-shirt, she sits in the corner of the corduroy sofa, legs tucked beneath her, coyly chewing her gum. There's a mischievous glint in her eye as though she knows she's misbehaving. "I'm quite good at not really caring too much about other people's expectations, I never really have. I mean even in a personal way, if people have expectations of me I've always been a bit like, well..." The pop siren lifts two manicured fingers with the well-practiced panache of the proverbial white van man. "I can be quite blunt," she giggles.

Dido owes a lot to her stubbornness. The porcelain-voiced 31-year-old is poised to release her second album, Life for Rent but if it weren't for this fiery self-assurance she would still be working for a London publishers, placating her musical ambitions by singing backing vocals with her brother (and producing partner) Rollo's band, Faithless. Instead, true to her persistent nature, she ignored Rollo's pleas to stick to books and battled hard - in the face of faith-testing label wranglings and endless tour schedules - to get her voice heard. Her determination was famously rewarded when Eminem used her cold tea-referencing, "Thank You" for the basis of his global smash, "Stan". In doing so, he delivered Dido's elegant melancholy to an audience far beyond her wildest imagination.

"I've never felt any shame in the fact that so many went off and bought my record because they heard 'Stan' - it's funny how some people try to imply I should have. I just don't think it matters where you first hear music if you like it," she says seriously in her half-posh-half-East End Islington accent. "Besides, it was funny hanging out with Eminem and Dr Dre. Dr Dre's my hero - I was just like an excited kid. It was freaky hearing them tell me how much they loved my record - and if they helped my music cross over into a whole new market, then wicked!"

Thanks to the exposure, Dido's 2000 debut, No Angel clocked up more than 12 million sales. Of course she feels vindicated by her phenomenal success, ("I rub it in Rollo's face everyday," she jokes) but she never aspired to it: "When I made that first record I had a very clear idea of what I was making. No Angel was always an underground record and I actually still feel it is," she says thoughtfully, staring at her crimson toenails. "Of course, I had big dreams or I would never have put all the work in. I had massive dreams - but not that big. Just selling a million records seemed so unachievable, but I thought right, I'm going to try. And then it just got out of hand. Some freaky, freaky shit happened."

In return for unexpectedly shifting vast quantities of her record Dido received "still strangely exciting" fame. And fortune - more than enough for the life-long Arsenal fan to buy her dream house nestled in the stylish bohemia of her Islington home-ground. But then came tabloid intrusion (which may or may not have contributed to her break-up with her fiancé and partner of seven years, Bob Page) coupled with a fierce music media backlash. Dido is not the only one's whose cred has suffered for the sin of having won over the masses (see also Coldplay, David Gray...). "It becomes uncool to like something that's obvious," she concedes. "But I just feel, well, what would I rather? That people actually hear what I do or a few, a handful of people... I know where I'd rather be in the world and it's having a successful career. I'm just going to make the music I make and not worry about the rest of it.

"I'm proud of what I do: writing simple songs about everyday things that people can relate to," she says, eyes smiling. Dido might not be at the cutting-edge, pushing musical boundaries but she has every reason be to proud, because what she does, she does very well. Dido's songs capture life - no glory, no glamour just simple, vibrant and very real - and are sown with perfectly observed universal truths. Tangling together her own experiences with those of friends, family and even total strangers she tells stories that effortlessly conjure the sickening hollowness and burning frustration of a dying relationship ("Stoned"), the crushing disappointment of unfulfilment ("Life for Rent") or the giddy bittersweet rush of holiday romance, its electric thrill dulled (but only just) by the reality of home ("Sand In My Shoes").

But with Dido the beauty is in the detail. Life for Rent is a lithe record that reveals itself reluctantly and things aren't always as they seem. Just as a smile can conceal menace, sweet, drifting sounds hide dark buried bitterness; acrid bile lurks beneath hypnotising stillness ("See You When You're 40") and triumphant grace disguises suffocating addiction ("Don't Leave Home"). The result is a teasing, textured record - alive with seductive strings and foreboding electronica, exotic rhythms and softly strummed guitars - that overflows with sincere emotion.

Dido admits she feels more confident, more adventurous, not just as a musician ("I feel more free to experiment") but as a person too. And this isn't just down to selling stadium-loads of her debut (though granted, it helps). Her split with Bob played a big part, too. The couple had just "grown different". But Dido's not moping, nor is she desperately seeking a replacement. Why should she? For the first time since her early twenties, Dido is absolutely living for herself. And she's loving every minute. "I know this is going to sound crazy - there's actually something really amazing about being over 30 and single. It's liberating, it really is," she says gleaming, her chewing gum poking out the side of her mouth. "You totally know your own mind so you can do all the fun things you want to do. In my twenties, I didn't have the sort of freedom within myself - the confidence in myself - to know what it was that I wanted. Now, I so know what I want.

"When I wake up in the morning I think, I'm just going to do as much, see as much, learn as much as possible and then write about it," she says squirming with child-like, genuine excitement. Dido is glowing with happiness. It colours her cheeks and guilds her every word. But more than anything, it's made her bold: bullishly independent and brazenly unafraid. "I can't be bothered to sit here and be paranoid. I don't know what the right thing to do is and I have no idea whether my career is going to fall flat on it's face," she says pausing.

Another smile blooms across her face. "We spend so long chasing unimportant shit - I mean seriously unimportant. Then you realise that actually, what makes you happy is ridiculously simple. And it's usually right under your nose."

'Life for Rent' is out on Cheeky/Arista on Monday